Franch shines brightest as Thorns FC earns chance to defend their title

PORTLAND, Ore. – As much as Portland Thorns FC preaches the virtues of its collective, it’s a collective that’s built as a platform for its individuals. That’s why Lindsey Horan is a leading Most Valuable Player candidate, Tobin Heath is on a two-month stretch of playing at possibly a world-best level, and, when the team was down so many individuals due to injury and absence at the beginning of the year, the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League season got off to a measured start.

But amid the team’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over Seattle Reign FC on Saturday at Providence Park – one that clinched a chance to defend their league title next Saturday in the NWSL Championship Game – it was other individuals who stepped up, too, reminding everybody of the talent base that exists beyond the team’s top-line stars.

Defensive midfielder Celeste Boureille had one of the best performances of her career, culminating a three-year ascent as a professional with an effort that freed up Horan (one goal, one assist on the day) and allowed the players in front of her to pin the Reign in Portland’s north end through much of the second half. Emily Menges, too – perpetually overlooked, albeit with individual accolades of her own – made a number of key first-half clearances and became increasingly assertive as the match went on.

The one individual, though, whose performance proved crucial as Heath tied the game before halftime and Horan, in the 77th minute, created a second double-post moment with her game-winning header, was someone who received recognition last year as the league’s best goalkeeper, and further acknowledgement this year when she earned her way back into the U.S. women’s national team. But the first 45 minutes Adrianna Franch gave against Seattle seemed to not only remind people of those heights but make an entirely new statement about her value. For all the stardom covering the field in front of Franch, the team would not be back in the NWSL final without their game-changer in goal.

“A.D. Franch obviously kept us in it that first 45,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said. “You find me a goalie that does a first 45 like that. Absolutely outstanding.”

Outstanding in a way that makes Seattle’s only goal of the day feel even more remarkable. Standing over a 29th-minute restart high on the Reign’s left flank, U.S. international Megan Rapinoe rifled a shot toward the top of Franch’s goal, one the Portland goalkeeper was able to push onto the crossbar. But the rebound fell right to Seattle’s Jasmyne Spencer who, at the far post, put home the game’s first goal. In a first half like that, it was going to take a supreme shot from an elite player plus a bit of ricochet fortune to get the Reign on the board.

The rest of the half, though, was pure dominance, not only on diving stops against Rapinoe and Seattle forward Jodie Taylor, but in the control Franch exhibited catching crosses as well as punching corners clear as Seattle crammed players into the Thorns’ six-yard box. There was never a point where you felt Franch made a wrong read, came for a ball she shouldn’t have, or failed to make the Reign’s life as difficult as possible. Franch again showed why she’s the league’s best number one.

“A.D. was absolutely huge, today,” Horan said, when asked what she was felt the most important part of the team’s performance. “We had a big lull in the first half. We weren’t playing our game. We weren’t pressing. We weren’t doing certain Thorns things. A.D. was the one that kept us in it, and if weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

For Franch’s part, she saw it as her time to step up – to do what players like Horan, Heath, Christine Sinclair and others have also done, before.

“As a keeper, that’s kind of your job, and that’s what you want to do to the best of your ability,” she said, before being pressed about the issue. The first 45 minutes weren’t just a goalkeeper doing their job. We know what that looks like. Those first 45 minutes were Seattle finding way after way to test her, taking advantage of that Thorns “lull” via close-range shots, crosses that needed to be claimed, and congestion to fight through on every Rapinoe or Steph Catley corner.

And Franch handled it all, save for one rebound that fell to Spencer. Even admit a point-blank shot from Rapinoe that had to be saved at her right post, or a seven-yard ball Taylor turned on, obscuring her view for a try that could have gone to either post, Franch somehow knew. On Saturday, she was seeing the game on another level.

“The games are little bit easier when you have to do more, for keepers,” she explained. “You are able to stay in it consistently. It’s when the ball’s the other end and you’re not doing anything for 45 minutes that you’re like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ So, it is easier to stay in the game when more shots are coming at you … Yeah, that 45 minutes was in some way, shape, or form, easier to focus.”

It’s not how the Thorns wanted it to go. Then again, that’s why you have an Adrianna Franch. And you have your Emily Mengeses, as well as your Celeste Boureilles to augment the Horans, Heaths and Sinclairs of the world, and although two of those world-beaters ended up providing Portland with their semifinal-clinching goals, it was the other individuals, stepping up in their own rights, that helped push the 2017 champions to another NWSL final.